Friday, May 10, 2024

Finishing Touches: notes on American Rust, So Help Me Todd and Truelove

The first season of American Rust debuted on Showtime in September of 2021. Adhering closely to Philipp Meyer’s novel of the same name, it was a masterful adaptation that I labeled the year’s best drama. So of course it was canceled the following January. Pretty much everything I label “the best of“ gets canceled; I’m starting to feel responsible. In what we still refer to as a “surprising move” — even though it’s grown totally unsurprising over the last five years — another network swooped in to save it; in this case, the fledgling Amazon affiliate Freevee picked it up for a second season. This was back in the late spring of 2022, and that’s the last I heard of American Rust until a month ago, when I Googled the title to see if there were any updates, and saw that the second season had already dropped — in its entirety — on Amazon Prime. (Apparently, now that Amazon Prime has added commercials, the ad-based Freevee has been rendered redundant.)

But that wasn’t my biggest surprise; my biggest surprise lay in recognizing that Amazon Prime had not merely released it — but buried it: dropped it without any fanfare. I think I can safely say that if I had heard nothing about Season 2 — and I follow the trades if not ravenously, then quasi-religiously — then John Q. Public didn’t know about it either. So Amazon Prime — clearly disinterested in seeing the series continue — chose to ensure that it died. (And by releasing all the episodes at once, they made sure it had no chance to build an audience during its run.) I’d like to say there was a time I believed no network would commission a show, then move heaven and earth to kill it — but I haven’t believed that since I stopped believing in the tooth fairy. I see it happen all the time. When I was a kid, I was desperate to work in television; now that I’ve seen showrunners gutted on a regular basis, I’m glad I forged a career instead in the music industry — where, you know, no one ever behaves badly.

The first season of American Rust built beautifully across nine weeks, immersing us in the tenor of a town facing economic decline and battered by a sort of societal malaise. Set in Buell, Pennsylvania — not far from the West Virginia line — sometime prior to the 2016 Presidential Election, it concerned itself with a group of people who had been made to feel undeserving: of success, of happiness, of an honest living and a living wage. Life had ground them into the dirt, but through the course of the first season, they rose again: some with renewed bravery, or loyalty, or a greater sense of self — and others without compassion or compunction. How far will people go, the first season asked — specifically to look out for those they love? In a world where folks have so little, they choose to project all of their hopes onto one person — a lover, a son, a best friend, an old girlfriend — and American Rust wondered: what sacrifices will people make to hold onto that? What horrible decisions will they double down on? What deals will they broker with the devil?

Season 2 began with more of a bang than Season 1 — it begins with a literal bang — but it never felt like showrunners Dan Futterman and Adam Rapp were shifting gears. Season 2 felt like an outgrowth of Season 1 in every way that counted. If you haven’t seen Season 1 of American Rust, then for heaven’s sake, go back and read my essay and/or watch the season before you proceed further — but for those who watched, you already know that Season 1 ended with Chief of Police Del Harris (Jeff Daniels) — spurred on by the woman he loved, seamstress Grace Poe (Maura Tierney) — committing a triple homicide to save her son from serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. Grace was motivated by her devotion to her son, Del by his devotion to Grace. And so the two of them had forged a devil‘s pact: one born out of love, loneliness, anger, fear and futility. Would you advocate murder to save your son, and would you commit that murder to satisfy the woman you love?

Season 1 — which ended where Meyer’s novel did — showed decent people pushed to desperate acts. Season 2 was about accountability. Once we’ve made horrific choices that transform us, where do we go next? Do we redirect our energies and seek atonement? Or do we plow forward — unaware of what we’ve become (or worse, fully aware) — and grow more ruthless in pursuing our goals? Futterman and Rapp set their narrative four months after the events of Season 1, and took a hard look at Del and Grace — wondering about their relationship not merely to each other, but to the audience. Could they continue to act as our moral compass? What outcome were we rooting for: their confession, their conviction, or their triumph over the odds?

Del and Grace have separate paths to pursue in Season 2 — because Del is alarmed by what they’ve become, and Grace is not. For her, getting her boy out of prison — regardless of how she managed it — was a success story. And the Grace we see in Season 2 has grown empowered by that. She was never afraid to speak her mind, but hardly a scene goes by in Season 2 where Grace isn’t fired up for a fight. After a disappointing legal hearing, she corners the attorney in her car and swats a cell phone out of her hand. At a campaign debate, she practically charges the stage to chew out one of the candidates. She doesn’t worry about the damage she’s doing to her credibility — or even if her disruptive behavior is putting her in the crosshairs of newly-promoted Chief of Police Park, who knows she’s mixed up in that triple homicide and vows to take her down.

Our feelings about Grace had grown muddied by the end of Season 1; Futterman and Rapp double down on our ambivalence in Season 2. Early in the season, she sells the oil rights to her property to a fracking company taking over Buell. She even takes money to act as their spokesperson. It’s arguably inconsistent with the Grace of Season 1 who had campaigned so vigorously to unionize her factory. But just how well did we know Grace Poe? Her motives never seemed sentimental; they seemed practical. How much were her efforts in Season 1 about looking out for the little guy, and how much were simply about making her own life a little more bearable? (She had, after all, sustained work-related injuries to her hands.) Was it inevitable that — given the disappointments and setbacks she suffered — her mercenary side would take hold?

There’s something disturbing about Grace’s actions throughout Season 2 — but there’s something exhilarating about them too; we envy her her lack of self-consciousness, and maybe even admire her drive to succeed at any cost. (Life in Buell doesn’t make it easy, after all. As lifelong friends Billy and Isaac predict — well aware of the hell that their own town has put them through — when the end of the world comes, it’ll come to Buell first.) No matter how dark Grace’s demeanor gets, Futterman and Rapp refuse to condemn her — and they ensure that we don’t either. Time and again, Season 2 reminds us that people can’t be defined or judged by their most recent behavior, or by the way they present themselves. It’s a fact of life we don’t focus on enough; we accept too much at face value. The best of us are just a step away from doing something foolish or foul; the worst of us have unforeseen potential for redemption. So how can we trust those around us — hell, how can we trust our instincts as viewers — when we never know people as well as we think we do? And how can we pass judgment on them when we have no idea what their next move might be?

If we never fully knew Grace, how well did we know Del? During Season 1, Del had been briefly hijacked to Pittsburgh; he had gotten involved with a brotherhood of vigilante officers during his time on the force there — and they had come to Buell to cash in a favor. Del got in and out as fast as he could; that was a world he was determined to leave behind. And yet when Season 2 starts, there he is back in his old stomping grounds: serving on the Pittsburgh police force, making nice with the same crooked cops he had moved to Buell to escape from. But that triple homicide has been eating away at him. Did he commit it because of a sense of justice — or to ingratiate himself with the woman who eased his loneliness? And if the latter, how can he depend on himself to make smarter decisions in the future? Del needs distance — and deliverance. And so returning to Pittsburgh to take care of unfinished business — a sort of penance — seems a suitable solution. (As his new partner Angela, Luna Lauren Velez fits snugly into the existing ensemble.)

Yet even as Del tries to regain his objectivity, he remains susceptible to Grace. Her way of cutting to the heart of a situation fascinates him — it always has. Her hold over him concerns him, but nonetheless, he feels that she complements him — he might even go so far as to say that she completes him. Even though they’re together now only on weekends — sometimes only the occasional weekend — he instantly relaxes around Grace. (When he invites a fellow officer for the weekend — to ferret out information — he not only lets Grace know about his plan, but asks for her help.) Grace and Del have become the strangest of soulmates. They’ve done something horrible — he feels much more responsible than she does. But he nonetheless trusts her to do right where he’s concerned. When the events of Season 2 come to a climax in the final episode, and Del knows he’s in over his head, it’s Grace he turns to for help. And despite the violent way in which she manages to save him — the culmination, you instantly realize, of the dark path Grace has been heading down this entire season — his only response is a grateful “thank you.” It doesn’t matter that she brings out the side of him he fears the most; at the end of the day, she has his back. Isn’t that all we’re looking for?

In some ways, every character spends Season 2 paying the price for what they learned in Season 1. If Grace has become a victim of her newfound ruthlessness and Del a victim of his renewed recklessness, then Isaac is a victim of his own late sexual awakening. Making up for lost time, he soon learns that the search for love can prove not only elusive, but complicated — and even deadly. And Lee is a casualty of her quest for redemption. A vixen when introduced in Season 1 — one quite content to let her ex Billy rot in jail so that her brother Isaac could go free — she emerges in Season 2 burdened by a conscience: working at a law firm she comes to realize is crooked and striving to set things right. (In some ways, she assumes Grace’s role as the series’ conscience; given the animosity between the two, the irony couldn’t be more delicious.) Then Lee makes a move near the end of the season that’s so objectionable, we’re inclined to cry foul, given the redemptive path the writers have taken her on. But as we consider it, we realize it’s wholly consistent with the woman we first met. Lee’s capacity for change was always going to be limited by her fears and her fixations. We knew back in Season 1 that she was destined to break Billy’s heart — Grace even warned him; when did we forget? (It’s Billy, the character who feels the most stuck, who grows the most in Season 2; he’s able to free himself from the disappointments that hounded him before prison, and the horrors that have haunted him since. But ironically — or perhaps fittingly for Buell — it takes him doing something monstrous to get there.)

In Season 2, there’s no reward for walking the moral high ground. Chief Park’s commitment to ferreting out the facts doesn’t make him commendable; it makes him seem obsessive to some — and a laughing stock to others. (That’s not just the opinion of his fellow townspeople; Futterman and Rapp ensure that we see him that way too.) Angela’s resolve to rescue a colleague from an abusive marriage — essentially saving someone who doesn’t want to be saved — ends up losing her a friend, and the loss is brutal. There’s almost nothing you can count on in Meyer’s Rust Belt. The best you can do is ally yourself with a few people you trust — and pray you chose wisely. And even after someone has let down their guard or let you into their confidence, you may uncover secrets that call everything you believed about them into question. (Isaac, Grace and Angela learn that lesson the hard way.) Do we ever know anyone well enough to know that they won’t hurt us?

Some of the scripting choices Futterman and Rapp made in Season 2 seemed fueled by budgetary constraints, but they managed to make them feel character driven. They reduced the scope of the series from a sprawling community to a more manageable cast of characters (Daniels, Tierney, Alex Neustaedter and David Alvarez were as impressive as ever, and Julia Mayorga — a weak link in Season 1 — improved considerably); they shifted location — for roughly half its length — from a town in decay to city mired in corruption. They picked up the pace and punched up the dialogue. But ultimately they reinforced all of Meyer’s themes. Meyer’s novel showed how people of genuine moral fiber can be corrupted, merely by trying to set things right for themselves and those they love. In Season 2, Futterman and Rapp took a different path to the same destination. Just as Del was there for Grace at the end of Season 1, she’s there for him — in much the same way — at the end of Season 2. So what we’re left with are two people who have been reprogrammed to view homicide as an act of affection and a sign of solidarity. It’s deeply disturbing. Meyer trusted his characters to Futterman and Rapp, and they returned them to him fundamentally the same, but fuller somehow: still capable of surprising you while remaining defiantly true to character. Can an author ask for more?

*****

CBS canceled So Help Me Todd on April 19, the day after it aired its most moving episode. If that’s not painful enough irony, I had proclaimed it the best one-hour series on network television in my 2023 round-up — so of course it was canceled. I’m not going to enumerate all the pleasures So Help Me Todd has afforded me — I did that back in the spring of 2023. (If you haven’t discovered the series, it’s currently streaming on Paramount+.) But I would like to talk about this particular episode, entitled “Is the Jury Out?” (from showrunner Scott Prendergast and writer Katherine Langenfeld), because it spoke to me deeply and personally, in a way I don’t think any TV episode has since the fifth-season opener of Bull in 2020. To call it “the best of the season” would be understating it. This is the kind of episode that outlasts us all; as a snapshot of LGBTQ+ life in 2024, it’s the sort of thing people will look back on in a generation and say, “Hey, remember when So Help Me Todd had the final word on issues of identity, community and privacy?”

The plot: Lawrence, the seldom-seen member of the Wright family, asks his younger brother Todd to use his PI skills to determine if a local judge is gay. His reasons? Well, as special assistant to the Governor of Oregon, he’s responsible for vetting potential appointments to the State Supreme Court. But there are already several openly gay judges on the bench, and one more might outrage the moderates that the governor needs for her upcoming reelection. So ironically, Lawrence — a gay man — is forced to potentially out another gay man. We recognize it feels somehow wrong — and maybe just a bit slimy — but if Lawrence senses it too, he’s too uncomfortable to admit it. Lawrence hates talking orientation; he barely feels gay at all, confessing to Todd: “All I do is work — 17, 18 hour days. And when I’m home, if I’m home, I’m doing laundry. So what about this life is gay? How am I gay? Why does it matter if I have that label? I mean, all I am is a working, busy, tired father.” Todd reminds him that he’s technically gay because he sleeps with a man, but Lawrence feels troubled — resentful, even — having to take on a label that’s too often associated with fun and freedom: “Well, I don’t feel gay. I’m not skipping around or listening to Metallica — or wearing lederhosen or going to Croatia — or driving around in a convertible with bubbles flowing out over the top.” And it falls to Todd, the youngest and for years the most irresponsible, to be the voice of reason: “Being gay isn’t only one thing or one way of life. I mean, you can be you gay or Croatia gay. Gay can be anything.” And then Lawrence — unaware of his own eloquence — cuts to the heart of the matter: “If gay can be anything, then isn’t it nothing? Who cares if anyone is gay? Aren’t we beyond labels now?“

Personally I’ve never been to a white party or a red party. I’ve never been on a gay cruise. I’m not a Croatia gay; I’m more of a militant gay. When Philip and I got married in 2012, I grew obsessed with saying — every time a technician came to our house, or I had to deal with Verizon on the phone — “my husband and I.” I wanted to gauge their response; I wanted to know if the person I was dealing with was homophobic. (I can’t tell you how often someone on the phone, after calling me “sir” for five or ten minutes, would hear me reference “my husband” and immediately start addressing me as “ma’am.”) And I wanted them to know that we were out there. That we existed. And that a lot of us had entered into legal, loving longterm relationships.

But how much longer do I need to keep doing that — or with the political climate growing ever more precarious, is it in fact more important now than ever? And once you determine that visibility is key to your continued liberties, how do you avoid falling into the trap of wanting every LGBTQ+ person to step forward — to represent the community, to be counted? I’ll freely admit, there was a time I wanted every gay actor to come out. I went to college with Jodie Foster, and grew impatient for her to stand up proudly and proclaim her orientation. Or at least I did, until I saw brave people like Matt Bomer choose to come out, and soon realized he may never play another straight leading role — because that’s how narrow-minded studio heads are. So where does our commitment to our community end? When do we get to stop being militant — or selfless — and just be? “If gay can be anything, then isn’t it nothing?”

We’ll come back to those questions, but first let’s dig briefly into the episode’s other “case of the week” — the one involving mother Margaret. Margaret is so good at her job — but oh dear Lord, what she’s done to her children. She’s been consumed this season with making her law firm solvent again, but “Is the Jury Out?” gave us the Margaret Wright we needed to see at that time: the one who could put aside her fears for the firm and focus on a case she felt passionately about. The case involved a college student being sued for slander by the teacher who had harassed her, but the episode began when the jury was sent out to deliberate — and Margaret found herself face-to-face with a potential witness who had come forward too late. A college student like the defendant, she belonged to a very strict conservative sect (she snuck out to classes by telling her family she was getting groceries); she could corroborate the defendant’s claims, but testifying in court would destroy her relationship with her family and her community. Margaret was asking her to give up everything for the sake of justice, but the student wasn’t sure she was brave enough to do it. When the time came for her to testify, Margaret left her outside the courtroom, assuring her that whatever decision she made would be fine — and she meant it. The irony wasn’t lost on us; “whatever decision you make will be fine” is the last thing you could ever imagine Margaret saying to her own children.

Margaret trusts a total stranger to make good decisions more than she does her own children. “Is the Jury Out?” was full of character-driven ironies like that: one of the things I love most about So Help Me Todd. Here’s Lawrence — determined to find out if a local judge is gay — insisting he prefers not to label himself. The hypocrisy is striking; it’s also very human. We crave privacy when it comes to ourselves; when it comes to others, we want to know everything. And Lawrence specifically wants to know if the judge is gay because the last time he was asked to vet a judge, for a different vacancy, he managed to overlook the fact that the guy was a rabid right-winger posing as a moderate — who indulged in gay hookups on the side. He wants to know this judge’s orientation because he wants to do his job well — and thoroughly; what’s wrong with that? But where does transparency end and the right to privacy begin? The episode made us wonder about Lawrence’s upbringing in ways that, sadly (given the show’s cancellation), will never be explored. Lawrence, it was clear, hated being labeled “gay” in part because of his own internalized homophobia. He was sent to military school at a young age: not the easiest place for a young man to come to terms with his sexual orientation. Whatever Lawrence’s upbringing was like, it’s clear some scars have never healed.

But the episode makes it clear — subtly, but clearly — that Todd has issues of his own. Because we all do: homophobia is insidious. (Internalized homophobia is so prevalent because homophobia itself is so prevalent; that’s part of the message — brilliantly understated — of “Is the Jury Out?”) In trying to determine if the judge is gay, Todd tries flirting with him — or at least, Todd engages in what he thinks a gay man flirting looks like. And it’s not pretty; Todd goes for some of the most clichéd mannerisms imaginable. (Some are spot on, because stereotypes exists for a reason, but that doesn’t make them any more palatable. If Skylar Astin gets away with it — and I think he does — it’s because he’s so damn charming.) Earlier in the episode, when Todd had implored his colleague Susan to help him sift through the judge’s trash (because its contents might reveal a clue to his sexual orientation), it was hilarious — but it was clearly a satire of gay stereotyping: the sort of thing Designing Women did so neatly 30 years ago in the GLAAD-nominated “A Toe in the Water.” But this is different. Todd feels he needs to flirt differently as a gay man than as a straight man; he has to assume “a gay persona.” Isn’t that homophobic? (And that said, one of his “gay flirting” bits was so spot on — it involved tugging his ear — that I roared with laughter. So am I homophobic?)

And later on, when Lawrence references the fact that he and his husband don’t have time for intimacy, Todd begs him to change the subject. Part of it is fully in character for Todd, who can’t let a confessional go by without inserting a quip. But it’s also the sort of ploy TV has been indulging in for 50 years: scoring a laugh by playing into the audience’s discomfort at imagining two men in bed. If So Help Me Todd is going to explore systemic homophobia, they’re not about to let the viewer off the hook either — because if there had been a studio audience, they would’ve laughed their heads off at Todd’s squeamishness. (To paraphrase Joan Cusack in In & Out, “Is everybody homophobic?” And the answer might just be: yes, even if only a little.)

And what about Margaret’s relationship with Lawrence? Was Lawrence shipped off to military school because his parents suspected he was gay and wanted to, um, set him straight? And is part of Margaret’s forgiving nature when it comes to Lawrence — whereas she’s inflexible when it comes to her two straight children — because she feels he needs her love more than the other two? When Lawrence is beating himself up over all the mistakes he’s made, Margaret is quick to comfort him in a way you know she’s done hundreds of times; she insists, “You are not a failure,” and then, “And of all my children” — and Todd and Allison cut her off, because they hate how that makes them feel. But Margaret has a bond with Lawrence that she doesn’t have with Todd or Allison. It’s not the bond that a mother would typically have with a gay son — that’s reserved for Margaret and Todd — so what is it? It’s doubtful that Margaret was going to say “and of all my children, you’re my favorite.” Was it more “and of all my children, you’ve had the most to deal with?” Does she suspect that Lawrence’s inability to connect with others is derived from his internalized homophobia — and even, perhaps, from the homophobia that she or (more likely) her husband helped foster? It’s part of the richness of So Help Me Todd that a single episode invites so many questions — and of Lawrence, mind you, a character who only appears a few times a year. You often hear writers talk about their “five-year plan” for a series, and you realize they’re saying that they have enough plot to fill hundreds of episodes. Prendergast clearly had a five-year plan, and it was character driven. He once described the series to me as “an investigation into this family”; in an episode like “Is the Jury Out?”, you see his plan vibrantly in motion.

Near the end of the episode, Lawrence has twin epiphanies, roughly 10 minutes apart. One is understated and moving; the other is magical. In the first, he realizes how being out and proud can impact public perception — thereby serving the community. (It’s not lost on the viewer that he comes to embrace his community just as the witness realizes it’s time to abandon hers.) And in the other, he sees the flip side of the coin: recognizing that coming out is a deeply personal decision, and — despite how it might serve a greater good, or further an agenda — it’s not a call that should be made by committee. That sexual orientation isn’t something we should be obsessing over, because — in his own words — “isn’t it nothing“? And realizing that, he’s able to liberate himself from a lifetime of self-loathing, or at least, enough to feel a weight lift off his shoulders — and that sense of liberation is given expression in a buoyant image that reduced me to tears. Prendergast and Langenfeld, I felt, had captured aspects of the LGBTQ+ experience that are all too rarely discussed, let alone dramatized: the issues of identity, community and privacy that we wrestle with daily. They defined the times we live in, paid homage to the times we’ve been through, and no doubt anticipated the times to come.

And now a brief word about the cancellation of So Help Me Todd. Prendergast and his cast and creative team managed to bring something unique to the network television landscape, and even if its impact isn't felt right away, that landscape will never be the same — because they showed that the primetime line-up doesn't have to be limited to remakes and spinoffs and "what we already know works." That even after 75 years of television, there's still potential to create something that feels fundamentally fresh and new. (Philip loves to multitask while he watches TV: knitting, checking his iPhone. When we watched So Help Me Todd, his eyes were fixed on the screen.) I haven’t felt so deeply sad about a series leaving the airwaves since Mary turned off the lights in the WJM newsroom. But I also feel gratitude to Prendergast and Co. for setting the bar so high. These two seasons will be discovered and savored for decades to come. Swear to Todd.

*****

The Channel 4 limited series Truelove is about euthanasia — and surprise: it doesn’t condone it. You wouldn’t say that it condemns it exactly; let’s call it a cautionary tale about people taking the law into their own hands. It starts with the simplest of premises. A group of old friends — elderly friends — reconnect at a funeral and vow to spare themselves the pain, suffering and degradation their late friend must’ve suffered. At whatever point in the future it happens, when they find themselves at death’s door, they’ll “step up and help each other across the threshold, out of love.” It sounds so reasonable, and so right. Who among us hasn’t seen a loved one suffer, and wished we could do something? It also sounds — to be honest — like the kind of thing you’d say at a funeral, on a few drinks, but don’t necessarily think about putting into practice. But what happens when one of those friends, a few months later, announces that he has terminal cancer, and already has a plan that he wants the others to undertake on his behalf?

It’s the sort of series that starts off as one thing and ends as another; there’s a twist midway through that you don’t see coming, one that alters the tone dramatically. But the texture remains firmly in place, and because of that, you never feel that the series has lost its way. Because at its core, Truelove isn’t a story about the right to die with dignity; it’s a story about old friends — two of them former lovers — renewing their bond. It’s about our penchant for romanticizing the past, and for denigrating the present for not measuring up. It’s about coming to terms with the bad choices we’ve made — or choices that once seemed reasonable that we’ve come to regret — and asking, what can we do about them? It’s about the lies we tell ourselves to make us feel young and to convince ourselves that the years haven’t taken their toll. And it’s about our insistence that our friends haven’t changed either — because it supports our self-deception.

Lindsay Duncan stars as Phil, one of the elderly friends (most of the principals are well into their 70’s, which is rare and refreshing), and it’s hard to imagine the series succeeding nearly as well without her. The role was originally announced for Julie Walters; it would’ve been a very different series with Walters, and I suspect a less effective one. Duncan exudes warmth and intelligence; she tends to become the voice of reason in pretty much any series she turns up in. When she speaks, we listen. When her old friend announces he has terminal cancer and needs help from her and her former lover Bill (Clarke Peters), Bill is outraged at the immorality and illegality. (He’s a former SAS officer; it’s hard for him to think outside the letter of the law.) But Phil very much wants to consider it, out of love and empathy, and she’s persuasive. She was a police detective for years, the highest-ranking woman in her department. (She’s still revered among her former colleagues.) We can see the qualities that made her an effective detective, and they assist her here. She knows how to make a case. When she argues that the humane thing to do for their friend is to help him along in his journey, we go along with it. We see the wisdom in it. And much to our surprise, so does Bill — although it’s unclear whether he’s doing it to help a dying friend or to please and protect the woman he’s never stopped caring for.

Phil and Bill’s act of mercy is committed in a boat far out to sea, and fittingly, it’s at this point in the narrative that the tide begins to turn — because Phil, it turns out (not a spoiler), is not the kind person we imagined. She’s made a loving decision where an old friend is concerned, but it doesn’t appear that she’s done else anything based on love in a very long time. Lindsay Duncan exudes such fiery intensity, it takes you a while to register what a chilly character she’s playing. Nearly a half century ago, she stepped away from a relationship that might have made her happy — stranding Bill at the altar — and married a nice man on the rebound. (It’s Phil Davis, managing to chart his increasing humiliation with both dignity and outrage.) But she’s no longer able to pretend that he’s made her happy. She treats him with curt condescension, even as he does his best to look after her. She makes him feel like he doesn’t matter, because over the years, she’s recast the decision she made long ago as a “mistake.” She’s grown convinced that choosing marriage to Bill could’ve changed the course of her life — if she’d just been strong enough to take that leap of faith — and now years later, still bitter with disappointment, she’s made her husband the outlet for her grief and frustration. He’s known what’s been lacking in their relationship for years, but he’s too decent and devoted to speak up; her daughter (a tart Fiona Button) isn’t — she recognizes the neglect she’s endured from her mother, and is all too eager to point it out. Phil’s strained relationship with her husband and daughter — contrasted with the ease and comfort she feels in revisiting her past — deepens the piece, and gifts Duncan her most complex character in years.

Phil only feels in her element when she’s back with her old friends; the years of disappointment fall away, and the kinship she still feels is a surprise and a relief. The doubts that have plagued her for years seem to vanish; she’s once again able to act with authority. In fact, she so convinces us that her decision to assist in her friend’s suicide is valid and warranted — essentially a non-issue — that when then she has to explain to her husband where she’s been, we’re shocked when she comes up with a lame excuse that’s bound to sound suspicious. Why couldn’t she just tell him the truth? But we’ve grown so persuaded by her line of thinking — we’ve become such a firm believer in the decency of what she’s done — that we almost forget that she’s broken the law. (Although assisted suicide is permitted in a dozen states in the US, it’s still illegal throughout the UK and can be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter.)

Yet surely the illegality of it isn’t enough to account for her secrecy? A bunch of people in their 70’s helping a friend die with dignity — is anyone really going to care? (When a dogged detective starts to figure out what Phil and Bill have done, she insists to a colleague, outraged: “They’re helping each other to die.” And he shrugs it off: “So what if they are?” As Phil notes at one point, the superpower of the elderly is that they’re practically invisible.) But in Duncan‘s performance, we see other factors at play. Because Phil comes to feel this wasn’t just an act of kindness. It was an act of intimacy: perhaps the first truly intimate act she’s engaged in in half a century — and she carried it out with the man she once loved. That’s not something she can easily explain to her husband. For Phil, it feels like she was unfaithful — not sexually, but emotionally: an infidelity based on sharing such a profound and personal bond.

And consciously or not, her thinking may run even deeper than that. Duncan forces us to explore every angle. Perhaps Phil doesn’t want to let anyone else in on her secret because — in a perverse way — it will lose its allure; maybe she’s clinging to the hope that keeping this confidence with Bill will help them rekindle their relationship. And perhaps she’s determined that her marriage is no longer worth the effort — and that this act of euthanasia is her way out; by ensnaring Bill in this scheme — and by lying so transparently to her husband — she’s letting her marriage die its own merciful death. This is meaty stuff, and I can’t see anyone attacking it with as much relish, polish and precision as Duncan.

I’m not going to say much more about Truelove, because what develops soon after is a set of reversals that upend the narrative — and I’m not about to give them away. (I will say that it ultimately uses Lindsay Duncan’s role as the “voice of reason” against her, which is diabolical.) The series created by Charlie Covell and Iain Wetherby — and scripted by Wetherby — puts a new twist on a hot-button issue, and it does so by making the issue itself almost incidental. Wetherby’s focus is on a group of friends reconnecting: a group so fraught with illusions about their old lives (and disillusion over their current ones) that they fall prey to their passions. They’re so eager to turn back time, they forget the lessons they’ve learned and the wisdom they’ve gleaned; they give themselves over to images of each other that no longer exist. Truelove indulges in its characters’ reveries, before exposing them as follies; it’s both starry-eyed and cynical. I recommend it highly.


Want more? Check out an essay called "The Fatal Blow", highlighting three noir-tinged dramas, Dark Winds, Black Snow and Blue Lights; an essay called "Negotations", in praise of three series that brightened my 2022: Minx, The Ipcress File and Inside Man; an essay called "Men in the Middle," highlighting four recent series that owe much of their success to the onscreen personas of their leading men: The Tourist, This Is Going to Hurt, The Responder and Around the World in 80 Days; an essay entitled "Rough Edges," in praise of two addictive comedies that I discovered in 2021, Back to Life and The Other Two; another entitled "Private Faces," highlighting two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life; and a fifth called "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and my most personal essay, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny in June of 2021, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.

If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, One Day at a Time Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati, Everybody Loves Raymond and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.

11 comments:

  1. “Is The Jury Out?” is easily one of the best episodes of the show has ever done. I’ve watched the episode twice now. I think Clark has watched it three or four times. Honestly, we hadn’t considered some of the issues you raise, but it definitely hit us on a personal level, like it did for you. And yes, we’re so sorry to see the show go. I guess the writing was on the wall when CBS started renewing everything, and Todd was not among them. But we were still holding out hope that some network exec with a special fondness for it would realize it’s OK to have one quality show on the network that isn’t at the top of the ratings. It feels very discouraging when a show like this gets canceled. There were some aspects of season 2 that felt a little frantic, but maybe that’s about squeezing a whole lot of plot into 10 episodes instead of 22. (Clark really didn’t buy into the feud between Margaret and Susan, but we’re hoping that gets resolved in some way next week.) But as you say, there wasn’t anything like it on network TV. We’ll miss it a lot.

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    1. BTW, Tommy, forgive me, but I suppressed a giggle when you wrote about how every time you call a show “the best of”, it gets canceled. Were you aware that a couple of hours before you posted this, Constellation got canceled? We ended up loving it as much as you did, but you really are 3 for 3 these days. LOL

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    2. I commented in my Margaret Sullavan essay that so many people died in her films, it’s like she was under a gypsy curse. Maybe *I’m* the one who’s cursed, and it’s the shows I love that die… :) Yes, I saw the Constellation news about an hour after I posted this. Son of a bitch…

      In my last paragraph on ‘Todd,’ I initially included a couple of reservations I had about Season 2. And then I decided that that’s not why I was there — and not the point I wanted to make in this particular essay — so I deleted them. But I can’t argue with you on either point. I too felt the start of the season was unnecessarily frenetic — I actually wondered if CBS had said, “Play up the comedy so we retain more of the audience from Ghosts.” (I preferred when the comedy was purely character driven – and often derived from pain.) And I felt the rift between Margaret and Susan was sudden and confusing; I’m still unclear how long it took Margaret to tell Susan she couldn’t promote her because of the firm’s financial woes — when it seemed like everybody *but* Susan was finding out. But you know, none of that detracted from my eagerness to watch the show “live” every week — the only network series I can say that about. I’ve always maintained — in theatre, at least — that it’s almost impossible to break new ground and get everything right. I think that’s true of ‘Todd.’ There was no template they could fall back on. A lot of what they were doing was untested and instinctual, so it’s probably inevitable that some things worked better than others. But even when it got things “wrong,” I thought it was glorious.

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    3. Totally agree.

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  2. I haven’t seen True Love — are there plans for it yo be shown in the US, do you know? But as you know, Rust and Todd are favorites of mine. I suspect you’re implying by the title of your essay that Rust won’t be returning either. It’s so discouraging to see all the shows that keep getting renewed - shows in their fifth and sixth seasons - that have no appeal for me, and then quality shows like American Rust and Todd get canceled early on. I also loved the second season of Rust. I thought it was interesting that you felt the show didn’t feel like it had switched gears. I felt like it had. But it felt to me like the right move, given the budgetary restrictions.

    I read an interview with one of the showrunners that fiscally they were prohibited from filming on location in season 2. I don’t know how you duplicate the story-telling approach in season 1 without going on location, so streamlining it all, made good sense to me. But I also appreciated the fact that there was still time to do scenes that were mostly about catching up with the characters - the divorce party being an obvious example, or that scene you quote between Billy and Isaac, when they’re lying on the front hood of the car talking about their futures. And that scene with the preacher on the bus was very evocative of Meyer. Actually, maybe the second season was more like the first season than I thought!

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    1. I may be totally wrong, but I just can’t see ‘American Rust’ coming back. As I mentioned, I sort of thought the writing was on the wall when Amazon dropped all the episodes at once, but then I saw one of the trades talk about how poorly it was doing.

      Oh my gosh, that wonderful scene with Billy and the preacher on the bus. I actually wanted to go into it in detail, but I was already running long. But yes, you’re right: so very evocative of Meyer, and I absolutely loved the fact that Futterman and Rapp — right when their narrative was barreling towards its conclusion — paused for this conversation that encapsulated so many of the themes that Season 2 was built upon.

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    2. Oh shoot, and I don't know anything about Truelove airing over here, but I will definitely keep my ears open and report back. :)

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    3. I know I wrote two paragraphs about Todd, but they somehow got left out. (That’ll teach me to try to comment via iPhone.) I too thought that Is the Jury Out? was the season’s best - and I’d agree with you, too, that it was the series’ most moving episode. But as great as the balloon bit was, I think I was even more affected when Lauren identified the people on his screensaver to the young boy. I was cringing, waiting to see if the boy said something awful, and was so happy that they didn’t go there: that they showed that the young have the potential to make up their minds about these things. “So: you’re married to a man?” It was perfect.

      I agree with J’s comment above: the Susan storyline has been problematic. I know this week ends on a cliffhanger, but I still hope we get some sort of resolution for Susan and Margaret. Both Susan allowing herself to be so swayed by Beverly and Margaret not telling Susan sooner about the firm’s money troubles felt contrived to me. Their long talk two weeks ago was excellent, in terms of Susan showing some awareness of Beverly’s empty promises, but it felt like cleanup after the damage had been done. And I’ve seen Leslie Silva do good work as far back as Providence, but this season I felt she went way over the top.

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    4. *Lawrence, not Lauren. Jeez! Stupid auto-correct.

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  3. It does seem crazy to me how a network or streaming service can go out of their way to pick up a show, and then care so little to see it through from there. I had no clue there even was a season 2 until I saw your post and then Brian randomly re-added it back to our Apple TV+ queue.

    Also - I do think Futterman can be an interesting writer. I remember loving the angle of dread he gave to CAPOTE which pared well with Bennett Miller's direction and that truly masterful Hoffman performance.

    I noticed a few people I knew, like past teachers from college and people I have done theatre with around your age, were posting on social media being upset about the cancellation of SO HELP ME TODD. Maybe I should give it a shot since I do very much love Marcia Gay Harden. Shout-out to her fantastic work in POLLOCK.

    I hadn't heard of TRUELOVE either, but I do quite love Lindsay Duncan and Clarke Peters. I feel like British TV, not that I need to tell you this, has such a VAST catalogue.

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  4. Maybe we could utilise this cancelling power of yours? We could recommend truly bad shows that inexplicably keep getting renewed and you could finish them off for us? I wish I'd known you when LOST started - you could have saved me 6 years!

    Will check out American Rust - Tierney is a goddess of the screen.

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